Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

Research Prominence

Who is stronger, David or Goliath?

New research from Queen’s University says the answer depends on your culture.

New research from Queen’s University has revealed the way people evaluate an opponent in a competition can be drastically different depending on cultures.

Li-Jun Ji, a professor in the Department of Psychology, and Albert Lee, a former Queen’s PhD student (now a professor at Nanyang Technological University), have found that people around the world decipher the appearance of their opponents in competitions in different ways. For many North Americans of European descent, an opponent is perceived as threatening when he or she shows signs of strength or advantages in appearance, such as looking powerful, strong, confident, intimidating, and so on.

For many people in Asia, such as the Chinese, an opponent is perceived as threatening when he or she shows no sign of strength. It is not a tough-looking opponent that the Chinese would fear, but an opponent who looks ordinary or weak.

“We are borrowing on the story of Goliath (a gigantic, mighty-looking warrior) and David (a small, weak-looking shepherd) from the Bible,” says Dr. Ji. “So, if we ask people ‘Who do you watch out for in a tournament, Goliath or David?’ our research suggests that the answer depends. If you were a Canadian or American of European descent, you tend to fear Goliath. If you came from a Chinese background, you tend to fear David.”

Dr. Ji explains such cultural differences can be explained by the differences in philosophical stances between Western and Eastern cultures. Grounded in many schools of Eastern philosophy is the principle that appearance is misleading. This principle, however, is much less apparent in the Western philosophical traditions.

The new research translates into everyday life as we are often competing with others for a goal.

“We could be competing with others for a spot in hiring, a medal at a sporting event or a slice of the market if we are working in business,” Dr. Lee says. “From this angle, I believe that an average person would benefit from knowing a little more about the role culture plays in how people behave and think, especially in situations involving head-to-head encounters among people.”

The next steps of the research include broadening the scope to other areas of life, such as situations that are not competitive in their nature, but they still require people to make judgments based on appearance. The team of the researchers are also interested in investigating whether people from different cultures would choose to present themselves in different ways, especially in competitive settings.

The research was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Why it’s wrong to refer to the ‘cult of Trump’

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump is welcomed by Vice President Mike Pence as he is introduced during a rally. (Photo by History in HD / Unsplash)

The recent events in Iran have led many to rail against a supposed “Trump cult.”

But suggestions that supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump are exhibiting cult-like behaviour isn’t helpful in an era of significant political polarization.

As those of us who study new religious movements often say, a cult is just a religion that you don’t like — and that pertains to political parties too.

Since Benjamin Zeller, an American scholar of new religious movements, published “The Cult of Trump? What ‘Cult Rhetoric’ Actually Reveals” last fall, allegations that Trump has spawned a cult are appearing more frequently in the media.

One journalist called upon his peers to “to realize that when political parties and leaders begin behaving like a cult, we should think about reporting on them as such.”

There’s a #TrumpCult hashtag on social media platforms.

And Steven Hassan, a former member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church who is now a self-described cult deprogrammer, argues in a new book that Trump is a cult leader.

What does it accomplish to allege a Trump cult?

Generally, it substitutes a value judgment in place of a sorely needed argumentative analysis of how voters generate their own political feelings, fantasies and attachments. And this feeds the cycle of polarizing political identities and political institutions.


Examples from Twitter, the media and in Hassan’s The Cult of Trump highlight instructive differences in how the cult concept is being used — and its impact.

Hassan argues that Trump supporters have been “brainwashed” by a charismatic leader. He sees them as deluded zealots who need his help to “wake up from the Cult of Trump.”

Hassan’s approach ignores their agency as well as decades of public education from organizations like INFORM, an independent educational charity that provides information about minority religions and has done important work on discrediting concepts of “brainwashing,” “deprogramming” and “cults.”

It’s worth remembering that the suggestion that Republican leaders were “chosen by God,” as former energy secretary Rick Perry recently described Trump, is nothing new. It was all the rage under George W. Bush and other Republican politicians who have catered to evangelicals.

Without question, Trump’s insistence that “we have God on our side” in the upcoming 2020 presidential election poses a problem for journalists and for public life.

But to describe the entire party as a cult lead by Trump is problematic. If journalists are going to heed calls to refer to the party as a cult and its supporters as cultists, they must define what “cult” means. Otherwise, they are assuming that a cult is some obvious phenomenon and everyone knows what the word means.

The term cult is used frequently by Trump critics on social media. As he criticized former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley’s defence of the Confederate flag, one commentator tweeted:

“Pretty telling that it’s a rite of passage into the Cult of Trump and the modern Republican Party that you have to publicly legitimize the Confederacy, a racist, treasonous, nightmarish dystopia founded on white supremacy and stark economic hierarchies.”

In this example, the cult comparison is incidental to the commentator’s argument about Republican ideology and partisanship. He isn’t arguing that Trumpism is a cult in any serious sense. “Cult” serves as shorthand for Trump’s base that simply adds a rhetorical flourish to a condemnation of Trump supporters on the grounds of their political beliefs.

Moral denunciation

But whether literal or figurative, “cult” discourse hurts critics’ ability to understand Trump’s appeal. The “cult” diagnosis isn’t a reasoned argument, or even an objective description: it’s moral denunciation.

There’s no question Trump policies that hurt people and endanger the world should be denounced. But the “cult” epithet doesn’t speak to those policies; it draws a line between Trump opponents and Trump supporters. And it oversimplifies the way people think and feel about their own beliefs and those on the other side of that line.

So why is it used so often?

It turns out that avoiding the temptation to make in-groups and out-groups — meaning dividing social groups into those who believe what we believe and those who don’t — is very difficult.

U.S. politics professor and author Lilliana Mason recently argued that it takes very little to activate a sense of group identity in people, and lead them to become hostile towards the out-group.

Indeed, the fact that we’re all susceptible to this kind of in-group/out-group thinking shows that politics is not just about reason, it is also about emotion. Political emotions are often layered with religion for Trump-supporting evangelicals who believe in a tough love that will lead to salvation for America.

To dismiss such people as being under the sway of a cult misses what Trumpism offers them. It therefore makes it harder to understand Trump’s power. It also makes it more difficult to understand the circumstances of Trump supporters’ lives. It makes other people’s feelings seem foreign, when they may be fundamentally common.

In conclusion, while there are many legitimate ways to critique Trump, demonizing his voters doesn’t help us understand why they are attracted to him, how their worldview has developed and how to do something about it.


[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]The Conversation

Sharday Mosurinjohn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Clean energy revolution

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada project funding advances research into replacing inefficient batteries.

Four years ago, Queen’s University researcher Gregory Jerkiewicz and his team of Canadian and international collaborators received a competitive $4 million Discovery Frontiers grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Funding is presented to only one project every two years and the broadly defined research subject is different each time.

The entire research team visited Queen's University just before Christmas to wrap up the project.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Engineered Nickel Catalysts for Electrochemical Clean Energy (Ni Electro Can) has generated research results that could revolutionize clean energy technology through the use of nickel, an abundant transition metal in the Earth’s crust, in materials such as fuel cells.

“Batteries, which are heavy and have a limited life span, will soon be replaced by fuel cells (in electric cars for example), which are currently very expensive,” says Dr. Jerkiewicz (Chemistry), the project leader and scientific director. “The problem is, the currently available fuel cells employ platinum nanoparticles and there isn’t enough platinum on earth to convert all batteries to fuel cells. Nickel solves that problem and allows us to create cost-effective and efficient alkaline fuel cells.”

Two other thrusts of the research included alkaline water electrolysis for hydrogen generation and electrochemical transformation of glycerol into value-added products.

International Leadership

Featuring 14 Canadian researchers from seven universities (University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, INRS Université de Recherche, University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, McMaster University and Queen’s University), nine international researchers from seven countries (Brazil, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway and the United States), and several industry partners (eg. Ballard Power Systems, CNEM Corp., Hydrogenics, Nissan Motor Company, Perkin Elmer), the project has also allowed Canada to emerge as a world-class leader in the area of nickel materials, nickel electrochemistry, and electrocatalysis, and open new research areas internationally.

Five research groups from Queen’s were involved in the project including the Beauchemin Group, Daymond Group, Evans Group, Mosey Group, and Jerkiewicz Group.

Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kirsty Duncan visited Queen's University for the official announcement.

Project Outcomes

The project saw several research outcomes and successes. A few highlights, include:

  • Strengthening Canada’s leadership role in the area of novel materials science and engineering for clean and renewable electrochemical energy systems
  • Enabling innovative research on electrochemical transformation of glycerol, a by-product of biodiesel production
  • Disseminating newly created knowledge and transferring it to industrial partners in order to maximize the impact of discoveries, breakthroughs and inventions

The Ni Electro Can project had several other tangible results including training 135 highly qualified persons, generating well over 90 scientific papers with more still to come, creating 40 international and national internships, developing an additional 24 research projects garnering an additional $4.8 million in funding, obtaining six patents and 275 conference presentations.

“From the outset, the Ni Electro Can team set out to address challenges associated with declining reserves of non-renewable energy sources and environmental pollution, says Kent Novakowski, Acting Vice-Principal (Research). “From the outcomes, clear headway was made in research and knowledge transfer in these areas. It’s what is possible when we combine significant support from the government of Canada with leading minds in Canada and internationally.”

In terms of what’s next, the team is currently working on their final report to be submitted to the NSERC and exploring various national and international research programs that would allow them to explore new research horizons.

Haitian children abandoned by UN fathers

The voices of young victims in Haiti can now be heard for the first time thanks to a groundbreaking new research project.

Marie* was 14 years old and enrolled in a Christian school when she met and became involved with Miguel, a Brazilian soldier working in Haiti as a UN peacekeeper. When she told him that she was pregnant with his baby, Miguel said he would help her with the child. But instead, he returned to Brazil. Marie wrote to him on Facebook but he never responded.

After learning that she was pregnant, Marie’s father forced her to leave the family home and she went to live with her sister. Her child is now four and Marie has yet to receive any support from the Brazilian military, an NGO, the UN, or the Haitian state. Marie provides what she can for her son but she cannot afford to send him to school. She works for an hourly wage of 25 gourde (around 26 US cents) so that she and her son can eat. But she needs help with housing and paying for school fees.

Sadly, Marie’s experience is far from unique. In the summer of 2017, our research team interviewed approximately 2,500 Haitians about the experiences of local women and girls living in communities that host peace support operations. Of those, 265 told stories that featured children fathered by UN personnel. That 10 per cent of those interviewed mentioned such children highlights just how common such stories really are.

The narratives reveal how girls as young as 11 were sexually abused and impregnated by peacekeepers and then, as one man put it, “left in misery” to raise their children alone, often because the fathers are repatriated once the pregnancy becomes known. Mothers such as Marie are then left to raise the children in settings of extreme poverty and disadvantage, with most receiving no assistance.

Mired in controversy

The UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) – the longest-running mission by the organisation in the country (2004-2017) – was originally mandated to assist local Haitian institutions in a context of political instability and organised crime. Its mandate was then extended due to natural disasters, most notably an earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, both of which added to the volatility of the political situation in the country. After 13 years of operation, MINUSTAH closed in October 2017, transitioning to the smaller UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH).

MINUSTAH is one of the most controversial UN missions ever. It has been the focus of extensive allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. A shocking number of uniformed and non-uniformed peacekeeping personnel have been linked to human rights abuses including sexual exploitation, rape, and even unlawful deaths. (For the purposes of this article, we use MINUSTAH personnel, agents, and peacekeepers interchangeably to refer to uniformed and non-uniformed foreign staff associated with MINUSTAH.)

This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.


With regard to public health, it is undisputed, and now officially recognised by the UN, that peacekeepers also inadvertently introduced cholera to Haiti. More than 800,000 Haitians are known to have sought medical attention for cholera and at least 10,000 died from the disease.

Various media organisations have reported that minors were offered food and small amounts of cash to have sex with UN personnel, and MINUSTAH was linked to a sex ring that operated in Haiti with seeming impunity: allegedly, at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. As a result of this story, reported by the Associated Press in 2017, MINUSTAH became a classic example of lack of appropriate response to allegations of sexual abuse. In the wake of this report, 114 peacekeepers were returned to Sri Lanka, but none were ever prosecuted or charged after repatriation.

Extensive research has demonstrated that children born of war are often raised in single-parent families in precarious economic post-conflict settings. The association with the (absent) foreign father, along with birth out of wedlock, often result in stigma and discrimination for the children.

Yet little is known about the impact of being a mixed-race child fathered by peacekeepers. Even less is known about the experiences of the so-called “Petit MINUSTAH”, or Haitian-born children of foreign UN peacekeepers. This is one of the reasons we set out to bring to light the stories of those affected by the UN mission.

Our study

We collected stories by asking participants to tell us what it’s like to be a woman or girl living in a community that hosts a peacekeeping mission. We audio-recorded the resulting stories, and then participants interpreted their experiences by responding to a series of pre-defined questions. This allowed us to better understand the circumstances and consequences of their interactions with peacekeepers.

Participants could share any story they chose, about anyone, and were not prompted in any way to talk about sexual abuse or exploitation. Narratives were captured by trained Haitian research assistants in the communities surrounding ten UN bases in Haiti in the summer of 2017. About 2,500 Haitians were asked about the experiences of local women and girls living in communities that host peace support operations. A variety of positive and negative experiences were captured, but 265 (10 per cent) of all stories were about peacekeeper-fathered children. This is particularly noteworthy since the survey did not ask about sexual relations with peacekeepers or about children conceived through such relations.

This would suggest not only that sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeeping personnel is not rare, but also, as one Port-Salut research participant said in her own words: “There are many young women who have children with the MINUSTAH.” This was echoed by a man in Saint Marc who told us: “MINUSTAH gave us many children without fathers.”

Map of stories. © Sabine Lee/Susan Bartels, Author provided

Some stories were first person, shared by those who had given birth to children fathered by UN personnel, while other stories were told by family members, friends or neighbours about women and girls raising children fathered by peacekeepers. To the best of our knowledge, these stories make up the first empirical research to bring forth the voices of families affected by sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.

Sex for one meal

Some sexual encounters between local women and girls and UN peacekeeping personnel were described as sexual violence. For instance, a male community member in Cité Soleil recounted: "All day, I heard women who are complaining about the sexual violence that MINUSTAH did to them. And they had given them AIDS through sexual violence. There are also some of them who are pregnant."

There were not only stories of women and girls being sexually assaulted by MINUSTAH but also of men and boys being similarly abused. But in our research, sexual assault was in the minority of reported sexual encounters. Instead, our data highlighted a much more pervasive problem, albeit one that has been reported less in the media – transactional sex with UN personnel.

One married man from Cité Soleil described a common pattern in which women received small amounts of money in exchange for sex: “They come, they sleep with the women, they take their pleasures with them, they leave children in their hands, give them 500 gourdes.”

In other cases of transactional sex, women and girls received food in exchange for having sex with members of MINUSTAH, highlighting the extreme poverty that contributes to these sexual encounters. One male community member in Port Salut reported: “They had sex with the girls not even for money, it’s just for food, for one meal.”

Evolving relationships

Another narrative that has received far less attention in previous reports is how consensual sexual relations between members of MINUSTAH and local women evolve. In some instances, these were casual dating relationships that resulted in a pregnancy, as was the case in this story, shared by a man in Port Salut: "I had a sister who was dating a MINUSTAH soldier. My whole family knew about it, my mother as well as other people. She became pregnant … Ever since, my sister’s life is a mess."

Other relationships were described as being more committed and loving, such as in this story shared by a woman in Cité Soleil, who said: “I was living in Cité Soleil and I was in a love relationship with a MINUSTAH. I became pregnant from him.”

We found that intimate relations with fair-skinned peacekeepers and having fair-skinned children were sometimes perceived as desirable. A woman in Leogane described “rumours” about girls having relationships with MINUSTAH and having their children because they “wanted these children to be beautiful”.

Calico beach, which became notorious as a location for transactional sex. © Chantel Cole, Author provided

Regardless of whether the relationship was consensual or transactional in nature, particular patterns were noted in how and where the interactions took place. For instance, meeting on the beach or in a hotel was common, as in this story shared by a woman in Cité Soleil, about a friend of hers: “He used to go to the beach with her, now the white man paid for a hotel for her, the white man goes to the hotel with her, he comes to have sex with her.”

Also of great concern is that many of the mothers giving birth to and raising children fathered by UN peacekeepers were themselves adolescents and not old enough to give consent for sex. One woman in Cité Soleil told us: "I see a series of females 12 and 13 years old here. MINUSTAH impregnated and left them in misery with babies in their hands. The person has already had to manage a stressful, miserable life."


After learning of a resultant pregnancy, most shared stories indicated that the MINUSTAH personnel were repatriated by the UN. One woman in Port-Salut told us: "One of my sisters gave birth to a child of the MINUSTAH. My sister had a baby with him because she met him, fell in love with him, he took care of her, but you know, they were sent away. That is why he stopped sending her things."

A male participant in Hinche described a similar experience for a girl he knew, saying: “She was pregnant from a soldier of the MINUSTAH … [He] was moved from his station and left his post and was never seen again.”

After the departure of the peacekeeper fathers, most young women were left alone trying to raise the children in extreme poverty. Some described being fortunate enough to receive support from their families, although certainly not all.

In almost all cases, access to education was beyond the mother’s or the family’s means, as described by one woman in Port Salut: "I started to talk to him, then he told me he loved me and I agreed to date him. Three months later, I was pregnant, and in September he was sent to his country … The child is growing up, and it’s myself and my family that are struggling with him. I now have to send him to school. They put him out because I’m unable to pay for it."

A man in Cap Haitian said: "The soldiers destroy these young girls’ futures by getting them pregnant with a couple of babies and abandoning them. Basically, these actions of the soldiers can have a negative impact on the society and on the country in general because these young girls could have been lawyers, doctors or anything that would have helped Haiti tomorrow … Now some of them are walking in the street, or in the flea market and other places with a basket over their head selling oranges, peppers, and other goods in order to raise children they have with the MINUSTAH soldiers."

In a few extreme cases, community members described women and girls who were left with little option other than to engage in further sex with peacekeepers in order to provide for the MINUSTAH children they were already raising. A man in Port-au-Prince shared one example: "He left her in misery because when he used to have sex with her it was for little money, now his term reaches its end, he goes and leaves her in misery, and then now she has to redo the same process so she can provide meals to her child, can’t you understand."

There were many requests in the stories we collected for MINUSTAH and the Haitian authorities to help support these children. One man in Port-Salut stated his request very clearly: “I would like to ask the head of MINUSTAH to take responsibility for the children of MINUSTAH members … We are just doing what we can but you cannot raise children like this…”

Power and exploitation

Our research has underlined what is implied in much of the academic literature on peacekeeping economies – namely that poverty is a key underlying factor contributing to sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeeping forces.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

In many cases, the power differential between foreign peacekeepers and local populations allows foreigners, knowingly or unknowingly, to exploit local women and girls. The prevalence of transactional sex in our data underscores the significance of the structural imbalances – peacekeepers have access to some of the resources that are desired or needed by the local population and so they are in a strong position to exchange those for sex.

While many of the stories cited above were collected in Port Salut and Cité Soleil, similar narratives were shared across all interview sites in Haiti and the phenomena described are not unique to the Haitian context. Our preliminary work in the Democratic Republic of Congo suggests a comparable situation.

In its zero-tolerance policy, the UN acknowledges the existence of socioeconomic and other power imbalances and their potential to render “intimacies” between peacekeepers and local women exploitative. In essence, the policy bans almost all sexual relations between peacekeepers and local women. In addition to suggesting that this blanket ban is ineffective, our data indicates that a more nuanced approach with targeted training of UN personnel is required alongside tackling the impunity that still surrounds peacekeeper wrongdoing.

Another key finding is the need for more effective mechanisms allowing victims of sexual exploitation and abuse and their children (as well as children of consensual and non-exploitative relations) to access support. This could potentially break the socioeconomic downward spiral that traps victims – and in particular children – in circumstances of extreme economic hardship, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

The UN Base in Cité Soleil, 2019. © Chantel Cole, Author provided

Child support

In January 2018, the Haitian-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) filed paternity suits in Haitian courts on behalf of 10 children fathered by UN Peacekeepers, with the aim of lobbying the UN to secure child support payments for those children. A year later, an open letter from the bureau to UN Victims’ Rights Advocate Jane Connors betrays their frustration with the UN’s lack of responsiveness and co-operation in the paternity suits, which “has made it nearly impossible for our clients to obtain justice”.

Evidencing the UN’s refusal to furnish results of DNA paternity tests that are vital to the mothers’ cases despite a Haitian court order compelling it to do so, the letter concluded that the UN was sending “an alarming message of lack of respect for the Haitian judicial system and the rule of law”.

This raises questions regarding the UN’s rhetoric about supporting the dignity and rights of those affected by sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers. It also calls into question the effectiveness of interventions of the Office of the UN Victims’ Rights Advocate, which exists to advocate for the rights of victims and to bring their needs to the forefront of the UN’s fight against sexual exploitation and abuse.


The findings from our research have led us to make three key recommendations.

1) Training of UN personnel must include a cultural awareness aspect to enhance understanding of the impact of power differentials in fragile peacekeeping economies, the perceived desirability of having a child fathered by a peacekeeper, and the socio-economic consequences for a vulnerable woman being left with a peacekeeper-fathered child.

2) The UN practice of repatriating any UN personnel implicated in sexual exploitation or abuse must stop as it has a double-negative consequence. First, it removes the alleged offender from any effective prosecution in the cases of alleged wrongdoing, and second, it removes them from any jurisdiction within which the victim/child/mother of a child would have any chance of securing the appropriate financial support for the child.

3) The recent appointment of a Victims’ Rights Advocate for those affected by sexual abuse and exploitation must be followed by a policy that will allow the advocate to tackle some of the injustices created by the exploitation and abuse at a structural level. At the same time, they must be allowed to become a powerful voice of the victims, speaking and working on their behalf within the UN and in collaboration with the host countries and the troop contributing countries.

Many of the participants interviewed expressed similar sentiments around the need for recognition of and support for children fathered by UN peacekeepers in Haiti. One man said: "I know a lot of young women, young girls, children, who are living with MINUSTAH children in their care… I would like for them [the UN] to take responsibility, to take the initiative to look for and rejoin those young girls so that they can help them with the children."

* Names have been changed to protect participants’ anonymity.The Conversation


Sabine Lee is a professor in Modern History at the University of BirminghamSusan Bartels is an emergency physician and clinician-scientist at Queen’s University. She is an associate professor of Emergency Medicine and holds a cross-appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Discoveries, collaborations, and award-winning scholarship

Research prominence at the national and international level is a key driver for Queen’s and in 2019 Queen’s researchers continued to make headlines for their discoveries, collaborations, and award-winning scholarship.

As we near the end of the year, the Gazette highlights some of the research and people who captured our attention.

Research Leadership

Each year, Queen’s faculty and researchers receive national and international recognition for their work and dedication to pushing the boundaries of knowledge.  The university continues to rank second in Canada for awards per faculty member (2020 Maclean’s University Rankings), and 2019 saw Queen’s researchers win some of Canada’s top awards and honours for research excellence.

NSERC Brockhouse Award recipients
The winners of the 2019 Brockhouse Canada Prize, from left: Michael Cunningham, Pascale Champagne, Philip Jessop, and Warren Mabee.  

This spring, Michael Cunningham, Pascale Champagne, Philip Jessop, and Warren Mabee garnered the competitive NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering for their work in enhancing the value and sustainability of our renewable resources through collaboration.  September saw four researchers – Rosa Bruno-Jofré, Margaret Moore, Kim Nossal, and Grégoire Webber – elected as Fellows and Members (College) of the Royal Society of Canada, and three researchers, John Smol, Wendy Craig, and Heather Stuart honoured by the Governor General for their work on bullying, mental health, and the Arctic.

Researcher Will Kymlicka recently received the SSHRC Gold Medal. One of the highest honours for the social sciences in Canada, Kymlicka was recognized for his groundbreaking work on the link between democracy and diversity. Internally, five Queen’s researchers – Mark Daymond, Robert Ross, Nancy van Deusen, Tucker Carrington, and Margaret Moore – were honoured with the university’s highest form of recognition for research achievement, the 2019 Prizes for Excellence in Research.

Major Initiatives

The Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative public discussion of the took place at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in front of a sold-out audience, and over 2000 online viewers. (Photo by Bernard Clark)

In September, a sold-out crowd packed the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts for the rare opportunity to hear two Nobel Laureates discuss their roads to research success, together with Canada’s Chief Science Officer Mona Nemer, and award-winning journalist André Picard. The event featured laureates Martin Chalfie, 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Queen’s own Arthur McDonald,  2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, as part of the first-ever Canadian tour of the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative, an international outreach program striving to connect Nobel Laureates with scientific and student communities at universities and research centres worldwide.

Throughout the year, Queen’s researchers continued lead dialogue and provide fact-based insights on their areas of expertise with contributions to The Conversation Canada, the international news platform. In 2019, 62 researchers penned 93 articles with almost 1.5 million reads on The Conversation Canada site and dozens of republications.

For 19 undergraduate students, summer 2019 was an opportunity to gain valuable experience in discovery-based learning and to develop their research skills through the annual Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowships (USSRF). The beauty and creativity of research shined once again with the fourth annual Art of Research photo contest.

Finally, late-2019 saw the launch of the university’s new central Research@Queen’s website. From in-depth features to the latest information on the university’s researchers, the site is a destination showcasing the impact of Queen’s research.

Notable Discoveries and Advances

New discoveries and research publications this year contributed to national dialogues, challenged the status quo, and opened new research vistas.

Through the Cadenza Practice App piano teachers and students can collaboratively plan each practice week and assign homework.

A first-of-its-kind, First Nations-specific report, co-authored by Michael Green (Family Medicine), showed the number of First Nations people in Ontario living with diabetes is at an all-time high at 14.1 per cent. Queen’s researcher Dylan Robinson (Languages, Literatures and Cultures) led the first successful effort to replace misappropriated songs from copyrighted operaLouis Riel.

Vicki Friesen (Biology) and former postdoctoral fellow Debbie Leigh sounded the alarm over the increasing loss of the genetic variation that allows species to adapt to the rapid and drastic environmental changes being generated by human activity.

P. Andrew Evans (Chemistry) and collaborators discovered a way to use pollen to deliver light sensitive drugs that could combat the problem of antibiotic resistance.

An important social innovation initiative based on pedagogical research, the Cadezna app, developed by Rena Upitis (Education) and collaborators, was created to support music learning in studios, ensembles, and classrooms.

Funding Future Research

Lee Airton
Lee Airton's (Education) speaks at the announcement for the SSHRC Insight Development and Talent grant programs. (University Communications)

Queen’s continued to attract leading researchers and competitive funding and awards through a number of national and international programs. The university also had the honour of hosting three national funding announcements: the SSHRC Insight Development and Talent grant programs, the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships and the Banting Post-Doctoral Fellowships, and the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) Ecosystem Fund.

The Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG), based at Queen’s, was awarded $25 million from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The only non-American partner to receive direct funding to conduct trials, the monies will allow CCTG to continue its work leading major cancer clinical trials in Canada and develop new large-scale trials under CCTG leadership.

In May, the Government of Canada announced that seven Queen’s projects received $1.72 million from the first round of the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), designed to support early-career researchers as they pursue the next great discovery in their fields

Queen’s University welcomed three new and eight renewed Canada Research Chairs as part of the Government of Canada’s June announcement of a diverse group of Canada Research Chairs.

For more information on research at Queen’s, visit the website

Manhattan’s rainforest of sound

MoMA features audio-visual art installation co-designed by Queen’s composer.

Rainforest V (Variation I) at the MoMA in New York City.
View of the Rainforest V (Variation I) installation at the MoMA in New York City. (Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp, MoMA)

Inside the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, a suspended jungle of everyday items has become the setting for audiences to experience the nature of sound in new ways, thanks in part to Queen’s composer/musicologist Matt Rogalsky. Entitled Rainforest V (Variation I), the exhibit is the latest evolution of late music pioneer David Tudor’s famed Rainforest series, which uses found objects to transform sounds by acting as natural filters.

“Tudor’s Rainforest series is not intended to evoke literal rainforest soundscapes,” says Rogalsky, a continuing adjunct associate professor in the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen’s. “The title was gleaned by Tudor from choreographer Merce Cunningham’s 1968 dance RainForest, for which he was commissioned to make the first piece under that name. But the sense of being surrounded by many sources all chirping, humming, and buzzing  what Tudor called an ‘electronic ecology’  is certainly familiar to anyone who has experienced a real rainforest.”

Before his death in 1996, Tudor had realized many versions of the artwork since creating the original Rainforest in 1968. Rainforest IV was created and performed with the help of a number of younger artists under the ensemble name Composers Inside Electronics (CIE). Performances of Rainforest IV would last multiple hours, during which performers performed sound through suspended objects while visitors walked amidst them to experience spatial and textural effects of bending and morphing audio.

With Rainforest V (Variation I), Rogalsky, who was invited to consider himself a member of CIE in the early 2000s, collaborated with Tudor’s long-time sound artist colleagues John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein to design a version of the work that would play on its own, so gallery-goers could enjoy the piece as an extended exhibition.

Explore a 360-degree video of the MoMA's Rainforest V (Variation I) exhibit.

Comprised of metal barrels, wooden boxes, cans, jars, lampshades, computer parts, fiberglass tubes, and more, the exhibition uses software to transmit sounds specially designed to best resonate with each object – creating a shifting, interactive landscape for audiences to explore. This version, created in 2009 for an exhibition in Mexico City and acquired by MoMA in 2012, was put on display on Oct. 21, 2019 and runs until Jan. 5, 2020.

“The acquisition and exhibition of this piece by MoMA is another very satisfying outcome of my research on Tudor and the Rainforest series,” says Rogalsky, who connected with Tudor in the early 1990s while conducting his master’s research, and went on to earn a PhD investigating the history of the piece. “The artistry of David Tudor and CIE has been a major influence on my own pursuits as a musicologist and sound artist, and it is a privilege to carry on and build upon the legacy of his work. It makes me very happy that Tudor’s legacy is also now represented in the MoMA collection.”

The New York Times profiled the work earlier this fall and you can learn more about it and about David Tudor on the MoMA website. Listen to a selection of the exhibit's audio below (headphones recommended):

Research participation goes virtual

New online platform connects researchers and people interested in taking part in studies.

Research participant Susan Robertson, left, with Research Stream co-founders Luc Pelletier and Brooke Resendes, centre, and Simone Appaqaq, research assistant, Kinarm Lab, Kingston Health Sciences Centre. Photo courtesy Matt Manor

Two recent Queen’s University graduates are addressing a problem that has plagued clinical researchers for years – how to make it easy and convenient for members of the public to get involved in research. Luc Pelletier and Brooke Resendes are co-founders of Research Stream, an online platform that aims to connect the two groups.

At least 80 per cent of research studies are delayed or cancelled because finding participants is not successful, says Pelletier, noting that the traditional methods of ads and posters are expensive, time-consuming, and hard to quantify.

“Until now, there was no streamlined way for patients and other people to get involved in clinical research studies,” he says.

So Pelletier and Resendes did their own research, connecting with more than 100 researchers and dozens of research participants to test out their idea.

“Participants told us they want something online – they go online to book other things, so why not research?” Pelletier says.

They were assisted by the Centre for Advanced Computing, which advised them and securely hosts their site. Sylvia Robb, a clinical research coordinator in Queen’s University’s Department of Anesthesia & Perioperative Medicine, and Adrian Storm, who was a patient experience advisor at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, gave them valuable insights as well.

“We learned that research is not patient-friendly enough,” Pelletier says.

Public launch

Launched in 2018, Research Stream was immediately embraced by both scientists and the public, they say. They’re currently working with researchers at Queen’s and its affiliated hospitals but eventually hope to expand to institutions across Canada.

Research groups post summaries of their projects, including who’s doing them, details of the study, and who’s eligible. People can scan the studies, and connect with a researcher by registering on the site. Research studies must have research ethics approval before they can be posted.

“It was so easy to do,” says Research Stream participant Susan Robertson, who was new to the idea of engaging in research. “It provided me with enough information to help me make the decision to take part. The email form is short and simple, and within a day I got an email from the researcher.”

So far she’s taken part in two studies at Kingston Health Sciences Centre. One study, as a “healthy subject,” was to test her coordination and reaction time using her eyes, hands, and arms in the Kinarm robotic system. She’s now taking part in a different study, this one lasting four months.

While research studies often look at individuals with specific conditions or diseases, people like Robertson are crucial to the research process because they provide the “healthy” baseline data that researchers need for comparison purposes when studying a health disorder.

Robertson does it because she’s interested in research.

“I feel like I’m helping, and I think it will enable me to better understand my own health,” she says.

Encouraged by results

Pelletier and Resendes are encouraged by the results of their work so far.

“We’re seeing a shift in perception about research,” he says. “We’re taking away the fear factor, and also educating – many people don’t realize that healthy participants are important. Our message is, research is an opportunity, and there’s a study for you.”

Research Stream, which recently completed the Wing Acceleration program, has been supported by Office of Partnerships and Innovation, Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre and Centre for Advanced Computing. The Wing Acceleration program provides early stage founders with tools and guidance to help them assess the feasibility of their business idea, validate their proposed value proposition and begin the development of a viable business model through an engaging series of small group workshops and individual coaching by experienced mentors.

Is it better to buy a real Christmas tree or a fake one?


[Decorated Christmas tree up close]
Christmas tree farms in Canada reported sales of $91.2 million in 2017. (Photo by TJ Holowaychuk / Unsplash)

It’s the holiday season again, and in the midst of making to-do lists and prepping for festive dinners, some people will once again ponder whether it is better for the environment to buy an artificial Christmas tree or to opt for the real thing.

It’s a good question to ask. We’re in the midst of a climate emergency and are becoming increasingly aware of our environmental impact.

Many of us are more likely to think about climate change when making purchases through the year. It makes sense to wonder if leaving trees in the ground to continue growing might not make a better contribution to the fight against climate change.

A decade to grow or keep

A natural tree of average size (2-2.5 metres tall, 10-15 years old) has a carbon footprint of about 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) — about the same as driving a car 14 kilometres.

This footprint increases dramatically if the tree is sent to landfill. When it decomposes, it will produce methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and generate a much larger footprint — close to 16 kilograms of CO2e. If the tree is composted or recycled, a common practice in many major cities — the environmental footprint remains low.

[Christmas tree in the centre of a mall]
Some artificial Christmas trees cost upwards of $300. (Photo by Yucel Moran / Unsplash)

By comparison, a two-metre tall artificial tree has a carbon footprint of about 40 kilograms CO2e based on the production of the materials alone.

Different types of plastics are used in artificial tree products. Some, like polyvinyl chloride, are very difficult to recycle and should be avoided. Polyethylene trees, which tend to look more realistic, have higher price tags.

The vast majority of artificial trees are produced in China, Taiwan and South Korea. Shipping from these distant factories increases the trees’ carbon footprint.

An artificial tree has to be re-used for 10-12 years to match the footprint of a natural tree that is composted at end of life. Even then, recycling the materials in artificial trees is so difficult that it is not common practice. Some old trees can be repurposed, but most artificial products will end up in a landfill.

Burning trees

This gives ecologically minded Canadians some sense of the impacts of their choice. But other factors are also at play. Real trees are becoming scarce and more expensive. In the United States, the average price of a real tree in 2019 has increased to US$78 from US$75 in 2018.

Weather has taken a toll on Christmas trees. In the U.S., hot weather and too much rain are considered contributing factors to a shortage of trees, and wildfires damaged or destroyed some farms. Heat waves in 2017 and 2018 killed young seedlings in Oregon and will impact tree supply in years to come.

In Canada, consumers who want natural trees have been warned to shop early, as many sellers have limited inventory due to fire, frost and insect damage that has accelerated over recent years.

Climate change will likely exacerbate these factors and could drive up the price of trees for years to come. Researchers have found that certain pests, like the balsam twig aphid, already a major pest in the Québec Christmas tree industry, will likely increase in a warming climate and harm commercial fir plantations.

[Artificial Christmas tree are lit up]
Canada imported more than $60 million of artificial trees in 2017, almost all from China. (Photo by Zac Agnew / Unsplash)

Oh, Christmas tree

Economics has also played a role in tree availability. Today’s trees were planted around the time of the Great Recession of 2008.

The impacts of this economic downturn were far-reaching in the industry. As demand fell during those years, many growers went out of business. This reduced the number of trees planted and contributed to the scarcity in today’s Christmas tree marketplace.

The Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association has shrunk dramatically in the past 15 years — from 300 members to about 80 today.

Is it time to give up on real Christmas trees?

Holiday trees provide wildlife habitat, protect soil, moderate floods and drought, filter air and sequester carbon while they grow. Tree farms also provide local economic benefits that don’t come with foreign-made products.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

The changing climate may not mean the end of holiday trees. Studies carried out in the Appalachians suggest that trees at lower elevations may be more likely to suffer from pests and damage as climate change progresses. They also found that tree farms at higher elevations may benefit from a longer growing season.

Research into the effects of temperature and precipitation extremes on cone formation may help growers maintain or enhance tree growth in response to changing environmental conditions. Forward-looking Christmas tree farmers may start planting a greater diversity of tree species to weather the impacts of climate change.

It is clear, however, that holiday trees face increasing risks from a changing climate and not all producers will be able to adopt cutting-edge methods; some will not choose the right trees.

Most Christmas tree operations in Canada are family businesses without deep pockets, and the costs of relocating tree farms to more friendly climes or higher elevations may put others out of business. The cost of a Christmas tree will likely continue to rise in the future.


The ConversationWarren Mabee is the Canada Research Chair, Renewable Energy Development and Implementation; Associate Dean and Director, School of Policy Studies; Director, Queen's Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, and Head, Department of Geography and Planning at Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Will Kymlicka receives SSHRC Gold Medal

Queen’s professor and researcher is awarded one of the highest honours for the social sciences in Canada.

Will Kymlicka receives Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal
Queen's University researcher and professor Will Kymlicka receives Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal from Ted Hewitt, President of SSHRC, left, and Charles Taylor, Canadian philosopher and professor emeritus, McGill University. (Supplied Photo)

Queen’s University professor and researcher Will Kymlicka recently received the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal.

The award, one of the highest honours for the social sciences in Canada, is given to an individual whose sustained leadership and dedication have inspired students and colleagues alike. Dr Kymlicka was recognized for his groundbreaking work on the link between democracy and diversity which has advanced knowledge on models of citizenship and social justice within multicultural societies.

In October, when the award was first announced, Dr. Kymlicka, Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen's, sat down and spoke about the importance of this latest honour and about his ongoing research.

Q: In a nutshell, tell me about your research on multiculturalism and minority rights? How are we viewing these issues differently as a result of your work?

A: Like other Western democracies, Canada is a “liberal democracy,” which means that we put a strong focus on the rights of individual citizens. The Canadian constitution also recognizes some group rights, but these have often been seen as anomalous, and perhaps even dangerous to liberal values. My work has tried to understand how we can make room in liberal philosophy for the rights of groups, and in particular the rights of minorities because they are the ones that need certain kinds of protections. 

When I started my work in the mid-1980s this topic was surprisingly neglected: there was barely any discussion in the literature about how a liberal democracy can recognize group rights. Today, there is a now a flourishing debate, in Canada and internationally, about what is sometimes called “liberal multiculturalism”.

The SSHRC Impact Award winners, including Queen’s University’s  Will Kymlicka are congratulated by Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry. (Supplied Photo)

I think this is a particularly important issue for Canada. Indeed, the very survival and success of Canada has depended on recognizing some group rights – for the Québécois, for Indigenous peoples, and for immigrant-origin ethnic groups. I have always thought of Canada as a kind of evolving experiment in how a liberal democracy can deal with issues of group rights, and I’ve tried to identify some of the important lessons we’ve learned over the years.

Q: In your career you’ve received more than 25 honours, fellowships and prizes. You’ve been called one of the world’s most influential philosophers. What does this award from SSHRC mean to you?

A:  It’s a special award, for several reasons. For one thing, it’s a Canadian award, and that means a lot to me. I’ve always wanted the work I do to be useful to my fellow Canadians, to help us better understand our collective experience and our future possibilities. I’d like to think that this award is a reflection of that.

Secondly, this award is interdisciplinary. This also matters a great deal to me. I want to do the kind of philosophy that is intelligible and useful to people in other disciplines as well, whether in political science, law, sociology or the humanities. I think philosophy has a lot to contribute to wider fields of research, but figuring out how to articulate philosophical ideas in a way that is both rigorous and accessible is a challenge. And here too I’d like to think the award is a sign that I’ve reached out beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries.

Q: Tell me about your early career. What started you on this path? What inspired you to look into these research areas?

A: Yes there was a very specific inspiration. I had planned to work on other issues in my graduate work at Oxford, but in 1985 I went to a talk given by Charles Taylor, the great Canadian philosopher (and, as it happens, the first winner of the SSHRC Gold Medal!). Taylor said that Canada’s existence depends on the recognition of group rights, but he also argued that there was no way to reconcile the recognition of group rights with the kind of liberal political philosophy that was dominant in the field. So he basically said we need to choose: do we endorse group rights or do we endorse liberal political philosophy? We can’t have both.

I thought that this was a powerful challenge, and I was taken aback that all the philosophers on the panel essentially agreed with him. Even the liberals on the panel agreed that there is no room for group rights in liberal theory. This didn’t make sense to me. After all, if we think about Canadian society over the past 50 years, it has become much more liberal, yet has also strengthened the protection of group rights, and in my naïve view, the recognition of group rights was part and parcel of this broader liberalization. So I didn’t see the inherent conflict or contradiction. So then and there, I changed my intended research topic, and took up the challenge of exploring how group rights fit into liberal theory.

Q: Your work has been translated into several languages and read around the world. What do you think your research legacy will be?

A: My work is part of a much broader debate about how we understand the liberal-democratic tradition. The liberalization and democratization of society has brought enormous benefits, I believe, but the liberal tradition of philosophy has often been narrowly individualistic. (Taylor calls it “atomistic”). I’m one of several people that are trying to develop a more “social” conception of liberalism, one that highlights how liberal values fit into complex and diverse social realities.

Q: Do you have any advice for young researchers and academics starting their own journey? Do you have any insights that could start them on the path to success?

A: I typically give my graduate students two pieces of advice. The first is to work on issues you care passionately about. Academia can be draining and frustrating, and you need to have a real commitment to an issue in order to get up every day and do the work.

The other piece of advice, particularly for young political philosophers, is that we need to get outside of disciplinary silos. If our work is to be useful, we need to be in conversation with other disciplines. In my work, I’ve drawn extensively on law, political science, history and social psychology. When political philosophers just talk to each other, the conversations quickly become arcane and disconnected from the real-world issues that require philosophical analysis. So that requires intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness.

Q: You have recently moved into a new area of research, on animal rights. Can you say a bit about that?

A: For the past 10 years or so, together with my partner Sue Donaldson, I’ve been working on how to bring “the animal question” into political philosophy. The lives of animals are often minutely governed by humans, but political philosophers have rarely discussed how we distinguish legitimate from illegitimate forms of governing animals, or how we can include animals in our conceptions of democracy or representation or citizenship. Animals are part of the “diverse social realities” I mentioned earlier, but they are invisible in political philosophy. So Sue and I are working to encourage research on how we relate to and govern the lives of animals in our society, including establishing an animal politics research group here at Queen’s. I think this will be a central issue for the future of political philosophy, and indeed for the fate of the world as a whole.

For more information visit the SSHRC website.

Digital economy’s environmental footprint is threatening the planet

Circuit board
The world’s data centres produce about the same amount of carbon dioxide as global air travel. (Photo by Malachi Brooks / Unsplash)

Modern society has given significant attention to the promises of the digital economy over the past decade. But it has given little attention to its negative environmental footprint.

Our smartphones rely on rare earth metals, and cloud computing, data centres, artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies consume large amounts of electricity, often sourced from coal-fired power plants.

These are crucial blind spots we must address if we hope to capture the full potential of the digital economy. Without urgent system-wide actions, the digital economy and green economy will be incompatible with each other and could lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, accelerate climate change and pose great threats to humanity.

The digital economy lacks a universal definition, but it entails the economic activities that result from billions of everyday online connections among people, businesses, devices, data and processes, from online banking to car sharing to social media.

It’s often referred to as the knowledge economy, information society or the internet economy. It relies on data as its fuel and it is already benefiting society in many ways, such as with medical diagnoses.

Coal is still king for the internet

Rare earth elements form the backbone of our modern digital technologies, from tablets and smartphones to televisions and electric cars.

Preliminary data (p) on the global production of rare earth elements, 1988-2018.  (Natural Resources Canada, 2019)

China is the world’s largest producer of rare earth minerals, accounting for close to 70 per cent of global annual production. The large-scale production of rare earth elements in China has raised grave concerns about the release of heavy metals and radioactive materials into water bodies, soil and air near mine sites.

Research on the life-cycle assessments of rare earth minerals has found the production of these metals is far from environmentally sustainable, consuming large amounts of energy and generating radioactive emissions.

It’s sometimes said that the cloud (and the digital universe) begins with coal because digital traffic requires a vast and distributed physical infrastructure that consumes electricity.

Coal is one of the world’s largest sources of electricity and a key contributor to climate change. China and the United States are the top producers of coal.

Energy hogs

The world’s data centres — the storehouses for enormous quantities of information — consume about three per cent of the global electricity supply (more than the entire United Kingdom), and produce two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions — roughly the same as global air travel.

A report by Greenpeace East Asia and the North China Electric Power University found that China’s data centres produced 99 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2018, the equivalent of about 21 million cars driven for one year.

Satellite image of the Bayan Obo mine in China, taken on June 30, 2006. Vegetation appears in red, grassland is light brown, rocks are black and the water surfaces are green. (NASA Earth Observatory)

Greenhouse gases aren’t the only type of pollution to be concerned about. Electronic waste (e-waste), which is a byproduct of data centre activities, accounts for two per cent of solid waste and 70 per cent of toxic waste in the United States.

Globally, the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic e-waste a year, worth over US$62.5 billion and more than the GDP of most countries. Only 20 per cent of this e-waste is recycled.

When it comes to AI, recent research found that training a large AI model — feeding large amounts of data into the computer system and asking for predictions — can emit more than 284 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent — nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car. The results of this work show that there is a growing problem with AI’s digital footprint.

Another area of concern is Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which rely on blockchain, a digital ledger with no central authority that continually records transactions among multiple computers. The amount of energy required to produce one dollar’s worth of Bitcoin is more than twice that required to mine the same value of copper, gold or platinum. A 2014 study found Bitcoin consumed as much energy as Ireland.

Blockchain technologies such as Bitcoin are energy inefficient and unless their potential applications are developed sustainably they will pose a serious threat to the environment.

Thinking differently

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

The digital economy is accelerating faster than the actions being taken in the green economy movement to counter negative environmental impacts. To move forward fast, we must first start thinking differently.

The world and its intractable challenges are not linear — everything connects to everything else. We must raise awareness about these major blind spots, embrace systems leadership (leading across boundaries), boost circular economy ideas (decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources), leverage an eco-economics approach (an environmentally sustainable economy) and encourage policy-makers to explore the interrelationships between government-wide, system-wide and societal results.

We must also consider collective problem-solving by bringing together diverse perspectives from both the Global North and the Global South. We should take an inventory of the global and local damages caused by electronic devices, platforms and data systems, and frame issues about the digital economy and its environmental impact in broad societal terms.

Perhaps, the way to move the current discussion forward is to ask: What needs to be done to set the world on a sustainable human trajectory?

We must not only ask what the digital economy can do for us, but what we can collectively do for both the digital economy and the environment.


Raynold Wonder Alorse is a PhD Candidate in International Relations (International Political Economy of Mining) at Queen's University.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Subscribe to RSS - Research Prominence